I can’t claim that there is much of connection between this post and the themes of my book, with which this blog is supposed to be concerned, but at the moment I can’t think of much else except the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Like almost everyone else I am shocked and revolted by it. Above and beyond the shock and revulsion that would accompany any such event, what is particularly disgusting is that it was an attack on free expression, which is central to democracy and to a free society.
Over Christmas, I read Lamentation, the latest of C.J. Sansom’s excellent ‘Shardlake’ series, set in England under Henry VIII in a period of massive religious conflict. The book, which is soundly based in historical fact (Sansom started life as an historian), opens with a graphic account of the burning at the stake of Anne Askew for heresy. Prior to this she had been grotesquely tortured. I mention this because the vicious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants (and shades within these two camps) in Europe at this time seems to me to parallel those between Sunni and Shia Muslims and between radical Islamism and secular society at the present time. And it reminds us that the post-Enlightenment freedoms of which Charlie Hebdo can be seen to be an heir were won against a background every bit as bloody as today’s conflicts.
Those freedoms are, for sure, of a complex sort. We don’t allow untrammelled freedom of expression – for example in terms of hate speech or incitement to violence. Indeed, although I haven’t seen it remarked on in the media at all, Charlie Hebdo has an interesting history in this regard. It was re-named this way when it re-launched following its banning by the French State for satirising reactions to the death of former President Charles de Gaulle.
Inevitably, in the aftermath, there has been a mass of comment. Many have called for Muslims to condemn the attack, failing to recognize that just about every Muslim spokesperson has done so. Somehow, there is a sense that no matter how much the majority of peaceful and law-abiding Muslims may condemn, it is never enough to satisfy the demands. In the context of Europe-wide anti-Muslim sentiment, such as the German Pinstripe movement, that is dangerous. It is also hypocritical. When Anders Breivik massacred 77 people in Norway in 2011, calling himself a Christian and citing several mainstream journalists who had criticised ‘multi-culturalism’, there was no comparable call for every Christian or every opponent of multi-culturalism to make public statements of this sort. In fact much comment at the time was semi-apologist, saying that his actions, whilst reprehensible, showed the dangers of multi-culturalism.
The same voices are being heard now, suggesting that the Charlie Hebdo outrage is somehow linked to multi-culturalism. This rather neglects the fact that the killers and the radical Islamist ideology they represent is the most resolutely mono-culturalist that can be imagined. Like the dogmatists of Europe’s religious conflicts they insist that there is only one truth, one law, one way of behaving, one way of worshipping. To that end they have massacred not just cartoonists in Paris but schoolchildren in Pakistan, amongst many other abominations.
We need to see Breivik and his apologists and Islamist terrorists and their apologists as two sides of the same coin. Like those who burnt heretics they insist on one truth and one culture. They are filled with a murderous certainty. Now, more than ever, it is important to defend the virtues of plurality and tolerance; of relativism rather than absolutism. To counterpose certainty not with another certainty, but with doubt. No one ever killed another person on the principle that ‘it depends how you look at things’ or 'there are two sides to every story'.
Whatever debates, comments and events follow the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it is important to remember its victims:
Stephane Charbonnier, 48
Jean Cabut, 68
Georges Wolinski, 80
Bernard Velhac, 58
Bernard Maris, 68
Phillipe Honore, 73
Frederic Boisseau, 42
Murdered in Paris, Wednesday January 7th 2015.